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From Qin to Han Dynasty

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge University Press
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The Han dynasty retained Qin's principal weapon against the old aristocracy, namely direct administration of localities by officials appointed by the court for their merit, not their birth, and subject to dismissal, transfer, and discipline. Han prefects and magistrates had broad responsibilities and powers: they judged lawsuits, collected and dispatched taxes, performed ceremonies of the state-sponsored religion, commanded troops, decided when and how to undertake public works like flood control, kept an eye on the local economy and local education, and selected subordinates from the local population. Those successful as local administrators could be promoted to serge at court as the head of a ministry or as a counselor to the emperor.

The key figure in the strengthening of the Han governmental apparatus was Wudi (r. 141-87 cc), emperor for Over fifty years. After coming to the throne as a vigorous young man of fifteen, Wudi set about curbing the power of princes and other lords: he confiscated the domains of over half of them on whatever pretext he could find. Moreover he decreed that domains would have to be divided among all the lord's heirs, thus guaranteeing that they would diminish in size with each passing generation. He curbed the power of great merchants as well, in the process gaining new sources of revenue through his state monopolies and commercial taxes. In foreign relations he was especially aggressive, reversing earlier conciliatory policies (see below). In the cultural realm he imposed his authority as well. He instituted imperial rituals as grand as the empire he ruled. He lured the finest writers and scholars to his court and at the same time suppressed rival cultural centres, including some princely courts.

Wudi and other Han emperors, like the Qin emperors before them, were essentially above the law, autocrats of theoretically unlimited powers. But rather than try to control officials through Legalist means such as exhaustive specification of rules and procedures, Wudi and other Han rulers made use of Confucian notions of the moral basis of superior-subordinate relations, appreciating that in the long run the ruler would achieve his goals more easily and economically when his subordinates viewed their relationship with the ruler in moral terms of loyalty and responsibility. To cultivate such attitudes in his officials, Wudi became a patron of Confucian education (see below).